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Third Sunday in Advent - What will it take to lead us to the wilderness?

Sr. Shelley Grant, CND, Penticton, B.C.

I noticed on the social networking site ‘Tumblr’ that Advent was a trending topic. When I clicked on it there were various images and quotes from hundreds of blogs about Advent. They ranged from quirky Advent calendars and mystical poems to stick figures of reindeer and cookie recipes. When I converted to Catholicism in 1980 and experienced my first season of Advent… I was told this Sunday was known as the ‘joyful’ Sunday.

None of them featured a wilderness! Yet, that is where John beckons us on this third Sunday of Advent. He is a voice of one crying out in the wilderness and what is amazing is that people follow him out there. Some of them wanted to question his identity - “Are you Elijah? The Messiah? The prophet?” Others were drawn to his message of repentance and preparation for ‘the coming.’ One could also say that Advent was a trending topic in John’s days.

Of all the sights and sounds of our current Advent season, wilderness is typically not one of them. When was the last time you saw a Christmas card with a stark image of the wilderness on its front cover? But scriptures tell us that the wilderness is important for salvation history: the Exodus of the Israelites lead through the wilderness and Jesus’ public ministry begins after a period of ‘testing’ in the wilderness. These stories teach that the desert is a place not only where God can be known more deeply but it is also a place where humans can know themselves more deeply. After experiencing life here in the Okanagan and the dry desert climate I can see when out in the middle of some of the reserves I travel to, you do have that time to think, to be alone, to allow the Spirit to take you where you need to go.

I have learned a few things about the desert and Advent. Both cultivate an attitude of watchfulness. What might look the same day after day, year after year (how many Advent seasons have you lived through?) has beauty and depth if we do not become lulled by sameness. I drive to ten different reservations every month. Most are located on back roads in the bush, through desert land with all the elements that you can imagine. If I took the time to be attentive throughout the day I noticed different things about the mountains, desert and the landscape: the ways the shadows moved over the rocks; the varied colors of brown, gold and tan; little flowers that seemed to come out of nowhere, different types of sage, and watching for rattlesnakes slithering over the warm asphalt.

For me, it’s easy to get lulled by the sameness of Advent traditions such as the hanging of the greens or the lighting of the Advent wreath, even the sameness of the story of the ‘babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’

Richard Rohr asserts, "Advent is not about a sentimental waiting for the Baby Jesus,” Adven is a time to focus our expectations and anticipation on "the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ," who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves, to surrender.

Following John out into the wilderness of Advent keeps me watchful and open to the new reality he announces, which never takes root in me in quite the same way year after year.

Wilderness is also a place of exposure. In this stark landscape, not only can one be exposed to heat and lack of water, one can also be exposed to fears and anxieties. At one of our mission churches we have a den of rattlesnakes under the ramp leading into the church. I have seen on one occasion, at least three curled up sunning themselves as we entered the church for service. The elders told me they were ‘holy’ snakes. Having a major fear of any type of snake their words gave me no solace whatsoever. The wilderness stories of Exodus, Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, and Advent teach that God meets us in our humanity, and the only way we can truly know God, as St. Teresa of Avila would say, is when we truly know ourselves.

John the Baptist invites us into the wilderness of Advent not to experience some kind of generic holiness or abstract Christian life. He invites us into the wilderness of Advent to truly know ourselves and to understand how God’s love and grace is made manifest in the particularities of our lives.

How do I witness in today’s world? What joy do I bring?




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